If you celebrate populist democracy, you may consider Andrew Jackson a 19th-century political savior.
If you’re of Native American descent, you may wish to see his face on a dartboard, because he forcibly and often fatally relocated your ancestors.
If you applaud fiscal conservatism, you may cheer the fact that he left the White House with the national debt at zero.
If you deplore the political spoils system, you may be surprised to learn he ramped it up to levels never before seen while in office from 1829 to 1837.
All these facets of our seventh president and many others get an airing in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” the musical that burst onto the off-Broadway scene like summer fireworks in 2010 before a short Broadway run that fall. (Its book earned a Tony nomination.)
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte opens it with three days of previews Thursday, before starting a regular run Sept. 18. Michael Friedman’s songs and Alex Timbers’ book depict Jackson literally and figuratively as America’s first political rock star, a guy equally likely to denounce or duel his foes. (On his deathbed, he reportedly expressed two regrets: He had been unable to shoot Henry Clay or hang John C. Calhoun.)
ATC artistic director Chip Decker says the play first spoke to him because of parallels between the seventh president and the 44th.
“There were immigration issues for Jackson – who should be a citizen, whom we should keep out – as there are for Barack Obama,” says Decker, who’s directing the show. “Both presidents dealt with banks that were supposed to be ‘too big to fail.’ The discourse between parties broke down. Voter turnout was greater for Jackson than it ever had been, the way it was during Obama’s first election. Americans were disillusioned with their predecessors, both of whom (John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush) won disputed elections.”
Jackson has local ties: He was born in the region called The Waxhaws, though the debate continues today as to which state can claim him. The outdoor drama “Listen and Remember,” formerly performed each summer in Waxhaw, has AJ as a character. Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster is billed as being “in his home county” on Wikipedia.
One need not exaggerate to make him a fascinating character. He fought the most famous battle in American history to take place after a war officially ended – the one commemorated in “The Battle of New Orleans,” sung about the War of 1812 – and lived with Rachel Robards before she petitioned her husband for divorce. He later said he thought Rachel had already divorced Robards; she died of a heart attack shortly after he became president-elect in 1828, and he blamed her death on the constant attacks on her reputation.
Jackson even faced the first recorded presidential assassination attempt in 1835: A man bore down on him with two pistols, both of which misfired, before Old Hickory allegedly whipped him with the hickory stick he carried. (The legend also says Davy Crockett had to restrain the president.)
The title of the musical refers to the blood that seemed to surround Jackson: in war, in more than 100 duels, in his decrees that some 45,000 native Americans be uprooted and forced to march west at the cost of many lives.
Yet Decker says the play “doesn’t take sides about his time in office: It shows him at his best and worst.” Realism won’t be the keynote: The “Bloody” Oval Office offers cheerleaders on giant pillows and people smoking hookahs.
“The takeaway of this show is, first and foremost, it’s fun,” says Decker. “The music is good. But there’s more there, if you care to look for it. I hope people walk away having conversations.
“There’s a song called ‘Second Nature’ that explores the American character: We see something, we want it, we take it. It’s second nature to us to act that way. And that doesn’t change.”
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